This year, with hesitation and fear, I signed my boys, Tommy, eight, and Frankie, nine-years old to play Pop Warner, tackle football. I strongly believed they would ruin their lives, get concussions and break their growth plates but agreed with my husband to let them play. Soccer would not be happening this Fall. It was time to ramp things up a notch.
“Hello gentlemen!” Coach Doc, the head coach of their Mighty Mite team bellowed at Frankie and Tommy at the first meeting and weigh-in. “Oh yeah, this is going to be a fun season,” he shouted as droves of boys came to weigh-in and to pick up their equipment. “Are you ready to play some football?” he roared into the wide-open air. “Yes coach!” young players anxiously screamed, all eager to remind him that they were all-in.
“Jeez!” I thought. “This is going to be intense.” I looked down at Frankie and Tommy and their eyes grew wide with anticipation. I quietly panicked. Testosterone joined the party.
Am I really letting my boys play tackle football?
Coach Gervy, the offensive coach, introduced himself, then Coach Rick, the defensive coach, then we met Coach Dave, Coach Chris, and Coach Jon. I couldn’t believe how many coaches there were! Without warning, we were moving headfirst into unchartered territory. There was no turning back this locomotive!
The coaches buzzed around, getting the boys excited. They learned my sons’ names quickly and shook their hands firmly. “What position do you play?” Coach Gervy asked. “Umm,” the boys answered while looking in my direction for help. I had no idea! At the time, I didn’t even know there was an offensive and a defensive team to every football team. I thought the quarterback was the only one running on and off the field?
“That’s okay boys, we’ll figure it out as we go,” he gently replied, registering the fact that my boys had never played before. Yes, okay, we will figure it out as we go!
Practice started. It was organized. The boys were singing like Navy shipmen by the second practice. “We are the Torreys….We are the Torreys…Mighty mighty Torreys….Mighty mighty Torreys…!” I giggled as they ran by in a tight group. Aw. It was cute.
“Tomorrow come to practice in FULL PADS!” The email from Coach Doc went wide, to all the parents. It was time to start hitting.
My heart tightened. All my years of teaching my boys to “use their words” would not work here. Stories of Jr. Seau and paralysis haunted my every thought. I was scared. I couldn’t sleep.
My boys began learning how to hit and tackle. Unfortunately, so did their teammates. Each practice, my sons were the ones on the sidelines with tears pouring down their faces.
Dear God. “What have I done?” I softly said to myself as I paced out of everyone’s view, one eye on the field, the other glaring at my irresponsible parenting choice.
It took a few practices for Frankie and Tommy to learn how to plant their feet. While learning, they got slammed. Hard.
Tommy got laid out - flat. “Wait until Coach Doc calls you over!” a mom cautioned, but I was already in a full-sprint onto the field! I caught myself just in time to pretend like I was running from a bee. I swapped at the air.
“Coach and Tommy both see you. Coach just wants to connect with him before he runs to you,” the mom continued. “This is how they develop a bond and a trust.”
Okay. I breathed through my nose. He’s in good hands.
Tommy took a knee on the sidelines. He looked over at me and said, “I’m okay,” and waved with his little boy hand. He was still crying. His big brown doe eyes expressed, “I’m not really okay but I’m going to be tough." l gave him a thumbs up, then gave him our sign language signal, “I love you,” the one we use when words aren’t enough.
Right then, I wanted to cry my eyes out. “He’s okay,” I quietly said to myself. But I wasn’t.
I wasn’t ready for him to be “okay” without me. I couldn’t believe that it was already time to start letting things happen to him. I knew it would come. I knew eventually I’d have to let him and Frankie live through things on their own and experience the good and the bad of situations. It just seemed to happen so fast.
But it was time. I had to let go. And I did.
And all the coaches, eight of them, grabbed on and held my boys closely. They looked over them. Practice after practice they built them up and inspired them to be the best version of themselves. They praised them and yelled at them and every single player thrived and rose to the occasion.
Practices were three days a week, for two hours at a time. We all came early. We all stayed late.
The Torrey Mighty Mites started the season in a showcase game before the Chargers/ Seahawks preseason game in Qualcomm stadium in front of thousands of football fans. The Mighty Mites looked so small and played so big. The team used that incredible experience and momentum and went undefeated all season.
My boys were the ones who put on their pads and helmets and tied up their cleats. They did the work. They believed in their own ability and pushed through walls of boys to carry the ball forward. They participated and gave it their all and in that, they had the time of their lives.
Each play counted. Each game was our own little thrill of victory. Each game, my boys walked taller.
The season is now over. Last Saturday night, they won their Championship game in front of hundreds of people under the lights at Jr. Seau Sports Stadium. Their team became the only team in La Jolla Pop Warner's history to ever go a whole season undefeated and became the best Mighty Mite team in all of San Diego.
They won and quite frankly, I feel like I did too. I’m not so afraid to admit it anymore. My kids play tackle football. It looks as if on this occasion, the rewards far outweighed the risk.
By: Maryann Castronovo